Active Engagement

Co-constructing a culture of reading critically.

Active Engagement

There is something almost indescribably satisfying about watching the light go on: to stand at my lectern or saunter around my classroom watching my students get something that they’ve been struggling to understand.

Their hands shoot up. Their backs straighten in their chairs (necks stretching upward toward the ceiling). At first, their brows furrow, and then their eyes open wide and even sparkle a little when they push past old limits by critically engaging with texts and each other.

They may be in small groups, vibing with one another across cultural and experiential divides. They may be close reading — really wrestling with ideas in books — filling in gaps and making connections. When their lights go on, I know that they’ve reoriented their thinking on some foggy notion or questionable claim.

According to Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain — a book that got me to sparklin’ the summer I discovered it — productive educational struggles, including critical reading, grow “brain power.” They actually increase what Hammond calls “intellective capacity.” They create more smarts.

When my students are critically engaged in reading tasks, neurons in their brains “fire”; electrical impulses and chemical reactions exchange information with other neurons via outreach-y, mini-arm-type things called dendrites. The more this happens, the more dendrites students’ brains grow. The same is true with your brain and mine. Our dendrites cluster together and form neural pathways, each one “similar to a footpath through a forest,” according to Hammond.

Little lanterns are passed along the pathways — more and more lanterns and more and more pathways the more we engage critically with the world and the textual materials in it.

What an excellent thing, to know that when we do things like actively reading, questioning, engaging with ideas unfamiliar to us, grappling with different points of view, and so on, we become smarter and more capable of seeing the world in new ways.

This is especially true when we read with an understanding of how power and equity operate in our world and in texts. According to Gholdy Muhammad, author of Cultivating Genius, this particular type of criticality “enables us to question both the world and texts within it to better understand the truth in history, power, and equity.” In other words, we become smarter and better able to live well in our pluralistic world when we read and think critically.

Perhaps that’s why there are so many powerful and questionably ethical people trying to make us — you, my students, and me — stop reading and thinking that way.

The spark-dimmers of society have been hard at work trying to extinguish criticality. According to PEN America’s 2022 Banned in the USA report, between July 2021 and June 2022, “there were 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles [and] impacting the literary, scholarly, and creative work of 1,553 [authors] altogether.” According to PEN, “41% had “LGBTQ+ themes, protagonists, or prominent secondary characters” and “40% had protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color.” Yet critical understanding is impossible without the engagement of diverse perspectives.

Notes Sarah Schwartz in Education Week, “Since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory [CRT] or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism…[and 18] states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues.” But CRT in education — as originally theorized by Gloria Ladson-Billings in the early 2000s — emphasizes critical and inclusive reading. Luckily, the way we read, and the way we inspire others to read, is still up to us.

Through this column, I hope to be like a dendrite, passing onto this community of avid readers easy ideas on how we can co-create a culture of critical readers. Critical reading, I’ve heard it said, is a form of inoculation against propaganda, and when practiced in one context, it transfers to others. Many educational researchers emphasize the importance of critical multiculturalism to informed voting, for example, and thus to democracy itself.

The wick-trimmers and flame extinguishers — nay, hydrants — are more potently mobilized than they’ve been since the McCarthy era. However, there are currently countless legal challenges to their efforts and activist uprisings against them, which I believe will beat anti-democratic anti-intellectualism. But I also believe that we readers, teachers, writers, and editors can and should forge the footpath. Only connective networks of people who demand to read widely and think freely can sustain what I hope we win back.

To that end, each installment of this column will introduce a concept from the field of critical reading and rhetoric and ask readers to consider applying it to their own lives. In this inaugural post, I’d like to toss out there the notion of “active reading” — the opposite of what one of my students revealed about her own practice when she told me, “I didn’t know I could question authors.”

Active reading is a committed engagement with a text. Questioning is central to the practice. It requires more effort than passive reading but empowers readers to assess a text’s credibility, notice biases, and gauge the other possible shortcomings of a given work.

How are the learners in your world engaging with text? Likely, they frequently Google, choose what comes up first, and skim. Or they read and memorize things in order to repeat them back on exams. Are your nieces and nephews questioning, though? Are your children and grandchildren seeking varied sources to form more well-rounded opinions? If you’re an educator, how about your students? If you’re a writer, what about your readers?

If you choose to introduce this idea to the learners in your life, let me know how it goes! Drop a comment below.

Sarah Trembath is an Eagles fan from the suburbs of Philadelphia who currently lives in Baltimore with her family. She is also a writer on faculty at American University and both reviews books for the Independent and serves on its board. She has written extensively for other publications and, in 2019, was the recipient of the American Studies Association’s Gloria Anzaldúa Award for independent scholars for her social-justice writing and teaching. In 2023, at age 54, she earned her doctorate in Education Policy and Leadership. Her collection of essays is currently in press at Lazuli Literary Group.

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